- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., took place nearly six years ago, and so much has happened since then — September 11, the Beltway sniper shootings, the tsunami, the war in Iraq — that you wonder whether the event still holds the ability to shock.

Perhaps because the shooters and most of the victims were teenagers, perhaps because the tragedy was goaded by a hatred as twisted as shrapnel, Columbine remains a hard and painful memory. “Columbinus,” an unpitying and heartfelt work by the U.S. Theatre Project that was conceived and directed by PJ Paparelli, probes what pushed two boys to mastermind and unleash their version of Judgment Day on their peers and teachers.

Mr. Paparelli contends that “Columbinus” (a Latin word meaning “dovelike”) is not a play but a “theatrical discussion” meant to stimulate conversation and questions rather than exist on its own as a cohesive dramatic experience. It’s a good thing for this production, a tangled and often overwrought affair that suffers from structural problems and an overall lack of focus.

“Columbinus” attempts to explain all the problems and stresses of adolescence, not just the circumstances that compelled Eric Harris (Karl Miller) and Dylan Klebold (Will Rogers) to commit mass murder before turning the guns on themselves on April 20, 1999.

A visually arresting but harried first act takes place in a fictional high school in suburban America, where overlapping voices and interior monologues express the chaotic world of teenagers struggling with self-identity and often trying on a series of masks or personas to fit circumstances.

The students, however, are types: Jock (Gene Gillette), obsessed with duty and earning respect; Goth Girl (Ekatrina Oleksa), drinking and doping and cutting herself for relief; Born-Again Christian (Anne Bowles), squeaky-clean, yet wanting to be known for more than just her faith; Nice Girl (Jeanne Dillon), dealing with sexuality she isn’t ready to handle; Big Man on Campus (Daniel Frith), arrogant and cool; Computer Nerd (James Flanagan), dying to be accepted; and the two Outcasts (Mr. Miller and Mr. Rogers), picked on by everybody.

All the characters get their moment of adolescent angst, and though the cast vividly articulates the manic emotions of the teen years, the insights are banal. The Computer Nerd has a brief, shining moment on the basketball court; the Nice Girl has an awkward sexual encounter and takes a pregnancy test; the Big Man on Campus feels a ripple in his confidence — “Columbinus” traffics in cliches.

The Outcasts appear to be pushed to the brink by jocks who throw bread and ketchup packets at them — boorish behavior, but hardly the motivation for a massacre.

The parents and adults are clueless and ineffectual, like stock characters in a sitcom.

Abruptly, the action shifts in the second half to the real-life Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, taking much of the narrative and dialogue from interviews, videotapes and transcripts.

Here, “Columbinus” assumes a shocking immediacy and tautness as the two friends plot the event with militaristic detail, and it features two of the most electrifying performances you are likely to see onstage this year.

The resentment they joke about through instant messaging alarmingly flames into a plan for Armageddon, yet we never get a real sense of how or why they became friends or their motivation — except that they both hate jocks. As played with visceral force by Mr. Miller, Eric is the powder keg of the two, exploding with rage and caustic belligerence. Mr. Rogers plays Dylan as more uncertain and withdrawn, a natural follower who looks to others for his sense of self. That both boys are smart and articulate makes them even scarier.

A re-enactment of the Columbine shootings is inevitable, and the play treats it with both discretion and theatricality. With their backs to the audience, Eric and Dylan strike the blackboard every time there is a gunshot while witnesses calmly describe what occurred in the school library.

Particularly chilling is a projection of one teacher’s panicked call to the police. JJ Kaczynski’s use of graphics in the multiple projections are quite effective, as are Martin Desjardins’ jarring sound design and the starkness of Dan Covey’s lighting.

If only the rest of “Columbinus” could be this direct and straightforward. Instead, the message is muddled by Mr. Paparelli’s desire to portray a wide spectrum of the adolescent experience rather than home in on Harris and Klebold. We need to know what made them tick, what ticked them off, not whom other students are taking to the prom.

A general tightening and the elimination of extraneous material could yield a “Columbinus” that would be a resonant reminder that the teen years can be crushingly lonely. Sometimes you barely get out alive.

**

WHAT: “Columbinus,” by the U.S. Theatre Project, conceived and directed by PJ Paparelli

WHERE: Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 3.

TICKETS: $10 to $35

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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